Days out: The ghosts of Sutton Hoo

Ships? I see no ships?
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The Independent Travel

Sutton Hoo, the Anglo-Saxon burial site on the Debden estuary in Suffolk, has been described as "page one in the history of Britain". It was here, beneath a mound of earth, that the imprint of a 27-metre-long wooden ship was discovered in 1939.

Ship-burial was a royal custom that continued in Scandinavia into the Viking period. Although at Sutton Hoo the wood had long since rotted and evidence of a corpse was minimal, the "ghost ship" contained an incomparable treasure trove: gold ornaments inlaid with garnet, silver bowls, cloisonnée jewellery, coins made in the 7th century, spears, swords and the most magnificent warrior helmet.

The impetus for the excavation was an unusual one. The owner of the land, Mrs Pretty, a wealthy widow interested in spiritualism, was looking out of the window of her house one evening with a friend, who claimed to see ghostly warrior figures walking on the largest mound. Mrs Pretty called in a local archaeologist who gradually uncovered the outline of the ship. The contents of the grave, considered the most important such discovery in northern Europe, were taken to the British Museum and for many years the bare, windswept site beneath the wide East Anglian sky was an empty stage.

Now the National Trust has brought it to life. Two elegant buildings have been erected, one housing a restaurant and the inevitable shop, the other an exhibition hall where the artefacts – some on loan from the British Museum, others well-crafted replicas – are on display. A half-size replica of the ship stands outside in the central courtyard. A path, laid to take visitors on the half-hour circuit to the burial place, winds along the crest of the comb (the word "hoo" comes from the Old English haugh, or "high place"), from where you can see not only the mound in which the ship was discovered but a series of lower mounds, some still under investigation. One of these was found to contain a warrior in full armour buried with his horse. To the west is the River Debden, from which the burial ship was dragged over 1,300 years ago.

In the guide book, The National Trust calls Sutton Hoo "both a place and an idea". To appreciate what it has to offer you must bring your imagination with you. It was in the dark of the audiovisual theatre that I was guided back to the Anglo-Saxon world by means of a 14-minute video, with its evocative sound track and Bergman-style images of beaches, crashing waves, sad-eyed men and girls spinning wool. For others, the haunting grassy mounds or the patterned intricacy of an Anglo-Saxon jewel may be enough. For young children it will probably be the play area and dressing-up box.

Sutton Hoo (01394 389700; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) is is two miles east of Woodbridge on the B1083. The nearest station is Melton. Admission: adults £3.50, children £2. Opening times: until 31 May and throughout October, Wednesday to Sunday 10am-5pm. From 1 June to end September, daily 10am-5pm.

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